A large crowd is seen in and around St. Peter's Square as Pope Francis celebrates the canonization Mass for Sts. John XXIII and John Paul II at the Vatican April 27, 2014. (CNS photo/Massimo Sestini, Italian National Police via Catholic Press Photo)
No one in a position of ecclesial responsibilitynot the Four Cardinals
posing dubia, not Grisez &
Finnis cautioning about misuses, and not the 45 Catholics
appealing to the College, among othershas, despite the bizarre
accusations made about some of them, accused Pope Francis of being a
heretic or of teaching heresy. While many are
concerned for the clarity of various Church teachings in the
wake of some of Francis’ writings and comments, and while some of these
concerns do involve matters of faith and morals, no responsible voice in the
Church has, I repeat, accused Pope Francis of holding or teaching heresy.
That’s good, because the stakes in regard to papal heresy
are quite high. Those flirting with such suspicions or engaging in such
ruminations should be very clear about what is at issue.
First. Heresy is, and only is, “the obstinate denial or
obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth that must be
believed by divine and catholic faith” (1983 CIC 751). Heresy is not,
therefore, say, the failure to defend effectively specific truths of Revelation
(though that might be negligence per Canon 1389); moreover, privately-held
heretical views, even if they are leading to certain observable actions, are
not in themselves actionable under law (Canon 1330).
Second. We can dismiss as impossibleindeed, as unthinkable
thanks to the protection of the Holy Spiritany scenario whereby a pope commits
the Church to a heresy. See Ott, Fundamentals (1957) 287, or
the Catholic Answers
tract “Papal Infallibility” (2004). However grave might be the
consequences for a pope falling into heresy, the Church
herself cannot fall into heresy at his hands or anyone else’s. Deo
Those two points being understood, the canonical tradition
yet recognizes (and history suggests) that a given pope could fall into
personal heresy and that he might even promote such heresy publicly, which
brings us to some thoughts on those possibilities.
Setting aside a few who, relying on half-baked notions like
“popes are not
bound by canon law,” throw up their hands in despair at the prospect
of a heretical pope and predict the End-of-the-World-as-We-Know-It, others,
more reasonably, point to Canon 1404, which states “The First See is judged by
no one,” and conclude that the only remedies in the face of a genuinely
heretical pope are prayers and fasting. May I suggest, though, that canon law
has somewhat more to offer than that.
Wrenn, writing in the CLSA NEW COMM (2001) at 1618 states:
“Canon 1404 is not a statement of personal impeccability or inerrancy of the
Holy Father. Should, indeed, the pope fall into heresy, it is understood that
he would lose his office. To fall from Peter’s faith is to fall from his
chair.” While I suggest that Wrenn’s warning be read again, lest its startling
impact be overlooked by the calm manner in which he expressed it, turning to
the crucial question as to who would determine whether a given pope has fallen
into heresy, Wrenn notes that it is not settled by Canon 1404 nor, I would add,
is it settled by any other canon in the Code. But again, one may turn to
canonical tradition for insight.
To be sure, all admit that in talking about popes falling
into heresy we are talking a very remote scenario.
Vermeersch-Creusen, Epitome I (1949) n. 340, “This sort of
case, given the divine protection of the Church, is considered quite
improbable.” Beste, Introductio (1961) 242, “In history no
example of this can be found.” And the great Felix Cappello, Summa
Iuris I (1949) n. 309, thought that the possibility of a pope falling
into public heresy should be “entirely dismissed given the special love of God
for the Church of Christ [lest] the Church fall into the greatest danger.”
But Cappello’s confidence (at least in the scope of
divine protection against heretical popes) was not shared by his
co-religionist, the incomparable Franz Wernz, whose summary of the various
canonical schools of thought about the possibility of a papal fall from office
due to heresy is instructive. After reviewing canonical norms on loss of papal
office due to resignation or insanity, Wernz-Vidal, IUS CANONICUM II (1928), n.
453, considers the impact of personal heresy on the part of a pope (emphasis
and citations omitted):
heresy notoriously and openly expressed, the Roman Pontiff, should he fall into
such, is, by that very fact, and before any declaratory sentence of the Church,
deprived of his power of jurisdiction.
concerning this matter there are five views, the first of which denies the
basis for the entire issue, namely, that a pope could, as a private scholar,
fall into heresy. While this opinion is clearly pious and probable, it cannot
be said to be certain and common. So, accepting the premise of the question, it
needs to be considered.
second opinion holds that the Roman Pontiff loses his power upon the fact of
even hidden heresy. This opinion is rightly said by Bellarmine to labor under a
false supposition, namely, that secret heretics are entirely separated from the
body of the Church. The third view holds that the Roman Pontiff, not even for
obvious heresy, loses, upon that fact, his power, nor can he be deprived of
office by deposition. But this opinion is called by Bellarmine, for ample
reasons, “highly improbable”.
fourth view, with Suarez, Cajetan, and others, argues that a pope is not, even
upon the fact of manifest heresy, deposed, but that he can be and must be
deposed upon a sentence (at least a declaratory one) of crime. “This view in my
judgment cannot be defended” as Bellarmine teaches.
there is the fifth view of Bellarmine which was expressed at the outset in the
assertion [above] and which is rightly defended by Tanner and others as being
more approved and more common. For he who is no longer a member of the
body of the Church, that is, of the Church as a visible body, cannot be the
head of the universal Church. But a pope who falls into public heresy would by
that fact cease to be a member of the Church; therefore he would also, upon
that fact, cease to be the head of Church.
a publicly heretical pope, who by the mandate of Christ and of the Apostle
should be avoided because of danger to the Church, must be deprived of his
power, as nearly everyone admits. But he cannot be deprived of his power by a
merely declaratory sentence.
every judicial sentence of privation supposes a superior jurisdiction over him
against whom the sentence is laid. But a general council, in the opinion of
adversaries, does not have a higher jurisdiction than does a heretical pope.
For he, by their supposition, before the declaratory sentence of a general
council, retains his papal jurisdiction; therefore a general council cannot
pass a declaratory sentence by which a Roman Pontiff is actually deprived of
his power; for that would be a sentence laid by an inferior against the true
sum, it needs to be said clearly that a [publicly] heretical Roman Pontiff
loses his power upon the very fact. Meanwhile a declaratory criminal sentence,
although it is merely declaratory, should not be disregarded, for it brings it
about, not that a pope is “judged” to be a heretic, but rather, that he is
shown to have been found heretical, that is, a general council declares the
fact of the crime by which a pope has separated himself from the Church and has
lost his rank.
I know of no author coming after Wernz who disputes this
analysis. See, e.g., Ayrinhac, CONSTITUTION (1930) 33; Sipos, ENCHIRIDION
(1954) 156; Regatillo, INSTITUTIONES I (1961) 299; Palazzini, DMC III (1966)
573; and Wrenn (2001) above. As for the lack of detailed canonical
examination of the mechanics for assessing possible papal
heresy, Cocchi, COMMENTARIUM II/2 (1931) n. 155, ascribes it to the fact that
law provides for common cases and adapts for rarer; may I say again,
heretical popes are about as rare as rare can be and yet still be.
In sum, and while additional important points could be
offered on this matter, in the view of modern canonists from Wernz to Wrenn,
however remote is the possibility of a pope actually falling into heresy and
however difficult it might be to determine whether a pope has so fallen, such a
catastrophe, Deus vetet, would result in the loss of papal office.
May that fact serve as a check against those tempted to
engage in loose talk about popes and heresy.